She opened a few of the cupboard doors and peered into cabinets, but she found only pots, pans, dishes, and glasses. She soon gave up on the phone when she realized that Vess, having taken the trouble to unplug and conceal it, would have hidden it outside the kitchen and in a place where she was unlikely to find it even if she’d had hours to devote to the search.
She continued opening drawers. In the fourth, she discovered a compartmentalized plastic tray containing a collection of small culinary tools and gadgets.
She parked the chair beside the open drawer and sat down.
Outside, the Doberman was pacing again, paws thumping faster than before, all but running back and forth on the porch, back and forth, and whining louder as well. Chyna couldn’t understand why it was still so agitated. She wasn’t breaking dishes or overturning furniture any longer. She was quietly looking in drawers, minimizing the clatter of her chains, doing nothing to alarm the dog. It seemed to realize that she was escaping, but that was impossible; it was only an animal; it couldn’t understand the complexities of her situation. Only an animal. Yet it raced worriedly from end to end of the porch, jumped to peer in the window again, fixed her with its fierce black eyes, and seemed to be saying, Get away from the drawer, bitch!
She plucked a wooden-handled corkscrew from the drawer, examined the spiraling point, and discarded it. A bottle opener. No. Potato peeler. Lemon-rind shaver. No. She found an eight-inch-long pair of heavy-duty tweezers, which Vess probably used to extract olives and pickles and similar items from tightly packed jars. The gripping blades of the tweezers proved too large to be inserted into the tight keyholes on her handcuffs, so she discarded them as well.
Then she located the ideal item: a five-inch-long steel pin, which she believed was called a poultry strut. A dozen were fixed together by a tightly wound rubber band, and she pulled one loose. The pin was rigid, about a sixteenth of an inch in diameter, with a point at the end of the shank and a half-inch-wide eye loop at the top. Smaller struts were made for pinning shut roasting chickens, but this one was for turkeys.
The thought of succulent roasted turkey brought the smell of it immediately to mind. Chyna’s mouth watered, and her stomach growled, and she wished that she’d eaten some of the ham and cheese sandwich Vess had made for her.
She held the strut between the thumb and the middle digit of her right hand, sparing her swollen index finger, and slipped the point into the keyway on the left handcuff. Probing experimentally, she produced a lot of small ticking and scraping sounds, trying to feel the lock mechanism in the gateway of the cuff.
She remembered a movie in which the greatest psychotic killer and criminal genius of his age fashioned a handcuff key out of the metal ink tube from a ballpoint pen and an ordinary paper clip. He sprang one cuff and then the other in about fifteen seconds, maybe ten, after which he overpowered his two guards, killed them, and cut the face off one to wear as a disguise, although he used a penknife for the surgery, not the homemade handcuff key. Over the years, she had seen many other movies in which prisoners picked open cuffs and leg irons, and none of them had any more training for it than she did.
Ten minutes later, with her left cuff still securely locked, Chyna said, “Movies are full of shit.”
She was so frustrated that her hand trembled and she couldn’t control the strut. It jittered uselessly in the tight keyway.
On the porch, the dog wasn’t pacing as fast as it had paced earlier, but it was still disturbed. Twice it clawed at the back door, once with considerable fervor, as if it thought it might be able to dig its way through the wood.
Chyna switched the strut to her left hand and worked on the right cuff for a while. Ticks, clicks, scrapes, and squeaks. She was concentrating so intently on picking the tiny lock that she was sweating as copiously as when she had been struggling to overturn the heavy table.
Finally she threw the turkey strut on the floor, and it bounced ping-ping-ping across the tiles, across a piece of the broken plate, and off a shard of the water glass.
Perhaps she could have freed herself in a wink if she had been the greatest psychotic killer and criminal genius of her age. But she was only a waitress and a psychology student.
Even as inconveniently sane and law-abiding as she was, she might be able to pop the handcuffs off her wrists and the larger shackles off her ankles with a more suitable tool than the turkey strut, but she would probably need hours to do it. She couldn’t dedicate hours solely to the job of freeing herself from the chair and chains, because once she was unfettered, there were many other urgent tasks to be done before Vess returned.
She slammed the drawer shut. Holding the chain out of her way and hauling the chair with her, she got to her feet.
With a jangle worthy of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Chyna went to the door between the kitchen and the living room.
Behind her, at the window in the dining area, a weird screeching arose. She looked back and saw that the big Doberman was scratching frantically at the glass with both forepaws. Its claws squeaked down the pane with a sound as unsettling as fingernails dragged across a chalkboard.
She had intended to find her way into the dark living room by the light spilling through the open door, but the dog spooked her. While she’d picked at the cuff locks, the Doberman had grown slightly calmer, but now it was as disturbed as ever. Hoping to calm it before it decided to spring through the window, she turned off the overhead fluorescent panels.
She eased across the threshold, leaving the kitchen, and pushed the door shut behind her, blocking out the squeaking. Blocking out the damn dog as well, in case it proved to be crazed enough to burst through the glass.
She felt along the wall. Evidently the only switches were on the other side of the room, by the front door.
The living room seemed to be blacker than the kitchen. The drapes were drawn over one of the two expansive windows that faced onto the front porch. The other window was a barely defined gray rectangle that admitted no more light than had the double-pane slider in the kitchen.
Chyna stood motionless, taking time to orient herself, trying to recall the furnishings. She had been in the room only once before, briefly, and the space had been clotted with shadows. When she had entered from the front porch this morning, the kitchen door had been somewhat to her left in the back wall. The handsome sofa with ball feet, covered in a tartan-plaid fabric, had been to the right, which would put it, now, to her left as she faced toward the front of the house. Rustic oak end tables had flanked the large sofa — and on each end table had been a lamp.
Trying to hold this clear image of the room in her mind, she hobbled warily through the darkness, afraid of falling over a chair or a footstool or a magazine rack. Swaddled in chains and under the weight of the chair, she would be unable to check her fall in a natural manner and might be so twisted by her shackles that she would break an ankle or even a leg.
Whereupon, Edgler Vess would come home, dismayed by the mess and disappointed that she had damaged herself before he’d had a chance to play with her. Then either there would be turtle games or he would experiment with her fractured limb to teach her to enjoy pain.
The first thing she bumped into was the sofa, and she did not fall. Sliding her hand along the upholstered back, she sidled to the left until she came to the end table. She reached out and found the lamp shade, the wire ribs beneath the taut cloth.
She fumbled around the shell of the socket and then around the base of the lamp itself. As her fingers finally pinched the rotary switch, she was suddenly certain that a strong hand was going to come out of the darkness and cover hers, that Vess had crept back into the house, that he was sitting on the sofa only inches from her. With amusement, he had been listening to her struggles, sitting like a fat, patient spider in his tartan-plaid web, anticipating the pleasure of shattering her hopes when at last she hobbled this far. The light would blink on, and Vess would smile and wink at her and say, Intense.
The switch was a nub of ice between thumb and finger. Frozen to her skin.
Heart drumming like the wings of a frantic fettered bird, the beats so hard that they prevented her lungs from expanding, the pulse in her throat swelling so large that she was unable to swallow, Chyna broke her paralysis and clicked the switch. Soft light washed the room. Edgler Vess was not on the sofa. Not in an armchair. Not anywhere in the room. She exhaled explosively, with a shudder that rattled her chains, and leaned against the sofa, and gradually her fluttering heart grew calmer.
After those gray hours of depression during which she had been emotionally dead, she was energized by this siege of terror. If she ever suffered a killing bout of cardiac arrhythmia, the mere thought of Vess would be more effective at jump-starting her heart than the electrical paddles of a defibrillation machine. Fear proved that she had come back to life and that she had found hope again.
She shambled to the gray river-rock fireplace that extended from floor to ceiling across the entire north wall of the room. The deep hearth in the center wasn’t raised, which would make her work easier.
She had considered going down to the cellar, where earlier she had seen a workbench, to examine the saws that were surely in Vess’s tool collection. But she had quickly ruled out that solution.
Descending the steep cellar steps while hobbled, festooned with steel chains, and carrying the heavy pine chair on her back would be a stunt not quite equivalent to leaping the Snake River Gorge on a rocket-powered motorcycle, perhaps, but undeniably risky. She was moderately confident of making her way to the bottom without pitching forward and cracking her skull like an eggshell on the concrete or breaking a leg in thirty-six places — but far from entirely confident. Her strength wasn’t what it ought to have been, because she hadn’t eaten much in the past twenty-four hours and because she had already been through an exhausting physical ordeal. Furthermore, all her separate pains made her shaky. A trip to the cellar seemed simple enough, but under these circumstances, it would be equivalent to an acrobat slugging down four double martinis before walking the high wire.
Besides, even if she could find a sharp-toothed saw small enough to be easily handled, she wouldn’t be able to use it at an angle that would allow her to bear down with effective force. To free the lower chain from the chair, she would have to cut through all three of the horizontal stretcher bars between the chair legs, each of which was an inch or an inch and a half in diameter, around which the links were wound. To accomplish this, she would have to sit, bend forward, and saw backward under the chair. Even if the upper chain had sufficient slack to allow her to reach down far enough for the task, which she doubted, she would only be able to scrape feebly at the wood. With luck, she’d whittle through the third stretcher sometime in the late spring. Then she would have to turn her attention to the five sturdy spindles in the back of the chair to free the upper chain, and not even a carnival contortionist born with rubber bones could get at them with a saw while pinioned as Chyna was.
Hacking through the steel chains was impossible. She would be able to get at them from an angle better than that from which she could approach the stretcher bars between the chair legs. But Vess wasn’t likely to own saw blades that could carve through steel, and Chyna definitely didn’t have the necessary strength.
She was resigned to more primitive measures than saws. And she was worried about the potential for injury and about how painful the process of liberation might be.
On the mantel, the bronze stags leaped perpetually, antlers to antlers, over the round white face of the clock.
Eight minutes past seven.
She had almost five hours until Vess returned.
Or maybe not.
He had said that he would be back as soon after midnight as possible, but Chyna had no reason to suppose that he’d been telling the truth. He might return at ten o’clock. Or eight o’clock. Or ten minutes from now.
She shuffled onto the floor-level flagstone hearth and then to the right, past the firebox and the brass andiron, past the deep mantel. The entire wall flanking the fireplace was smooth gray river rock — just the hard surface that she needed.
Chyna stood with her left side toward the rock, twisted her upper body to the left as far as possible without turning her feet, in the manner of an Olympic athlete preparing to toss a discus, and then swung sharply and forcefully to the right. This maneuver threw the chair — on her back — in the opposite direction from her body and slammed it into the wall. It clattered against the rock, rebounded with a ringing of chains, and thudded against her hard enough to hurt her shoulder, ribs, and hip. She tried the same trick again, putting even more energy into it, but after the second time, she was able to judge by the sound that she would, at best, scar the finish and chip a few slivers out of the pine. Hundreds of these lame blows might demolish the chair in time, turn it into kindling; but before she hammered it against the rock that often, suffering the recoil each time, she would be a bruised and bloodied mess, and her bones would splinter, and her joints would separate like the links in a pop-bead necklace.
By swinging the chair as though she were a dog wagging its tail, she couldn’t get the requisite force behind it. She had been afraid of this. As far as she could determine, there was only one other approach that might work — but she didn’t like it.
Chyna looked at the mantel clock. Only two minutes had passed since the last time she’d glanced at it.
Two minutes was nothing if she had until midnight, but it was a disastrous waste of time if Vess was on his way home right now. He might be turning off the public road, through the gate, into his long private driveway this very moment, the lying bastard, having set her up to believe that he would be gone until after midnight, then sneaking back early to —
She was baking a nourishing loaf of panic, plump and yeasty, and if she allowed herself to eat a single slice, then she’d gorge on it. This was an appetite she didn’t dare indulge. Panic wasted time and energy.
She must remain calm.
To free herself from the chair, she needed to use her body as if it were a pneumatic ram, and she would have to endure serious pain. She was already in severe pain, but what was coming would be worse — devastating — and it scared her.
Surely there was another way.
She stood listening to her heart and to the hollow ticking of the mantel clock.
If she went upstairs first, maybe she would find a telephone and be able to call the police. They would know how to deal with the Dobermans. They would have the keys to get her out of the shackles and manacles. They would free Ariel too. With that one phone call, all burdens would be lifted from her.
But she knew in her heart — the old friend intuition — that she was not going to find any telephones upstairs either. Edgler Vess was unfailingly thorough. A phone would be in service in the house whenever he was home — but not when he was away. He might actually unplug the unit and take it with him each time he left.